Chuck Schumer’s Path to Democratic Leader Looks Clear

Durbin won’t run, and Reid has endorsed the New Yorker to succeed him.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 22: Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), center, with Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), from left, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Sen. Patty Murray (D-NV) hold a press conference to urge the House to enact immigration reform at the U.S. Capitol on May 22, 2014 in Washington, DC. Senate democrats called out House Speaker John Boehner for letting nearly a year pass without taking action since the Senate sent over a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms and Fawn Johnson
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Sarah Mimms and Fawn Johnson
March 27, 2015, 6:33 a.m.

The race to be the next Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic Lead­er was over be­fore it began.

There are only two Demo­crats in the Sen­ate who have been viewed as le­git­im­ate can­did­ates to suc­ceed re­tir­ing Sen. Harry Re­id in the party’s top slot: Dick Durbin of Illinois and Chuck Schu­mer of New York. And be­fore the dust had cleared on the day Re­id an­nounced his exit, the field was down to one: Schu­mer.

“Sen­at­or Durbin told Sen­at­or Schu­mer late last night that he wasn’t run­ning for Lead­er, and that Schu­mer has his sup­port,” a Durbin spokes­man said Fri­day af­ter­noon. “Durbin in­tends to run again for Whip and has Sen­at­or Re­id’s sup­port. He’s been speak­ing with sen­at­ors this morn­ing.”

Re­id had already giv­en Schu­mer his bless­ing. “I think Schu­mer should be able to suc­ceed me,” the de­part­ing lead­er told The Wash­ing­ton Post Fri­day morn­ing. 

And Schu­mer, in a press re­lease that already soun­ded like a vic­tory speech sent out from his of­fice Fri­day af­ter­noon, de­clared: “I am honored and humbled to have the sup­port of so many of my col­leagues and look for­ward to our Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic Caucus con­tinu­ing to fight for the middle class.”

A source close to Schu­mer said Fri­day that when the No. 3 Demo­crat learned of Re­id’s re­tire­ment plans Thursday, the Minor­ity Lead­er en­cour­aged him to make calls to shore up sup­port among the con­fer­ence. Des­pite the budget vote-a-rama on the floor that kept mem­bers in the cham­ber for more than 13 hours on Thursday af­ter­noon in­to early Fri­day morn­ing, Schu­mer spent his down­time on his flip-phone call­ing around for com­mit­ments from fel­low Demo­crats. By mid-day Thursday he had com­mit­ments “from the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of the caucus,” the source said.

Schu­mer, with his brazen de­liv­ery of the Demo­crats’ polit­ic­al mes­sage and much-lam­pooned love of the TV cam­er­as, had long been con­sidered the front-run­ner. He is also cred­ited by both Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic aides with help­ing to smooth ties between Re­id and Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, who have a frosty re­la­tion­ship.

Durbin’s dis­in­terest in the top job won’t come as a sur­prise to many in the Demo­crat­ic con­fer­ence, who long as­sumed that Schu­mer was next-in-line for Re­id’s job. The minor­ity whip led Sen­ate floor op­er­a­tions for the Demo­crats while Re­id was re­cov­er­ing from his ser­i­ous Janu­ary ex­er­cise ac­ci­dent., but re­peatedly stated at the time that he was simply filling in, and his stance at the front-left lectern on the Sen­ate floor, Re­id’s usu­al spot, was not an au­di­tion for the top job. Asked by Na­tion­al Journ­al in Janu­ary wheth­er he’d lost in­terest in even­tu­ally re­pla­cing Re­id, Durbin quipped: “That as­sumes I was ever in­ter­ested in it.”

Durbin, the minor­ity whip, led Sen­ate floor op­er­a­tions for the Demo­crats while Re­id was re­cov­er­ing from his ser­i­ous Janu­ary ex­er­cise ac­ci­dent. He re­peatedly stated at the time that he was simply filling in, and his stance at the front-left lectern on the Sen­ate floor, Re­id’s usu­al spot, was not an au­di­tion for the top job.

Much to the chag­rin of their staffers, Durbin and Schu­mer also are fre­quently por­trayed as rivals. They deny they are com­pet­ing with one an­oth­er. Yet they have been viewed as the two po­ten­tial lead­ers-in-wait­ing for years, even as they were long­time room­mates in a fam­ous Cap­it­ol Hill group house.

(RE­LATED: Harry Re­id Will Not Seek Reelc­tion in 2016)

Cur­rent and former Demo­crat­ic aides say that both Durbin and Schu­mer have out­stand­ing re­la­tion­ships across the caucus. One former aide noted, however, that Schu­mer has spent a lot more en­ergy than Durbin court­ing the new­er mem­bers. And Schu­mer has kept the Rules Com­mit­tee top Demo­crat­ic slot—which in­cludes power over perks such as of­fice space—spe­cific­ally to keep in touch with sen­at­ors and their needs. Those facts, com­bined with Durbin’s past in­sist­ence that he does not want to be Demo­crat­ic lead­er, made it clear even be­fore Fri­day that Schu­mer prob­ably had the post locked up.

Re­id an­nounced Fri­day that he will not seek reelec­tion in 2016, after con­sult­ing with his wife, who has had her own health prob­lems, bat­tling breast can­cer in 2011. Re­id also said that with­draw­ing from the race—which was poised to be tough—would free up re­sources for oth­er Demo­crats seek­ing Sen­ate seats and help his party re­gain the ma­jor­ity.

Re­id’s re­tire­ment next year will set off a flurry of shuff­ling for Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship in the Sen­ate. Durbin and Schu­mer are ob­vi­ous choices for the top spots. The only ques­tion is who will be No. 1. Patty Mur­ray of Wash­ing­ton is also in a po­s­i­tion to take on a lead­er­ship role. She and Durbin took the lead in Demo­crat­ic mes­saging and floor pro­ced­ures dur­ing the re­cent budget de­bate, and she has twice run the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee.

Oth­er pos­sib­il­it­ies for pro­mo­tions in­clude Jon Test­er of Montana, who cur­rently heads the DSCC, and Eliza­beth War­ren of Mas­sachu­setts, who helps de­vise Demo­crats’ policy ob­ject­ives. Amy Klobuchar of Min­nesota, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Mark Warner of Vir­gin­ia also hold lead­er­ship spots that could change in the next Con­gress.

(RE­LATED: Demo­crats Have a Harry Re­id Prob­lem)

GOP aides see Schu­mer as the bet­ter choice, al­though they are not privy to the in­ner work­ings of the Demo­crat­ic caucus, which is where Durbin shines. They cer­tainly prefer Schu­mer over Re­id. One GOP aide had this to say about Schu­mer: “He’s a highly par­tis­an, ideo­lo­gic­al, hard-driv­ing, trash-talk­ing “¦ deal­maker. Ha. He fights with gloves off, but at the end of the day—in every way un­like Re­id—he wants to get something done.”

Sen­ate lead­ers—ma­jor­ity and minor­ity—have ar­gu­ably the hard­est jobs in Con­gress. Com­pared with their coun­ter­parts in the House, they have very little power to move le­gis­la­tion be­cause they con­sist­ently need co­oper­a­tion from the op­pos­ing party. And in Demo­crats’ case, the Re­pub­lic­ans have been a tough nut to crack. Re­id man­aged to hold on to the top spot in the Sen­ate in part be­cause he has made sure that mem­bers of his own party are taken care of above all else.

“The reas­on why he has been lead­er so far is that in the end, each and every mem­ber of his caucus knows that everything he does is to pro­tect the caucus—from [ul­tra-lib­er­al] Bernie Sanders to [mod­er­ate] Joe Manchin,” said Jim Man­ley, a former aide to Re­id and long­time Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate staffer who now runs his own con­sult­ing firm.

When Re­id was ma­jor­ity lead­er, he not only had to be versed in each mem­ber’s pet policy areas, he also had to keep track of minu­tia like flight sched­ules, Man­ley said. Sen­at­ors from the West Coast greatly ap­pre­ci­ated it if he would wrap up Sen­ate busi­ness on Fri­days by 1 p.m. That, com­bined with en­sur­ing that they wer­en’t faced with dam­aging votes on Re­pub­lic­an ideas, made Re­id’s job par­tic­u­larly tough.

It’s com­mon for Sen­ate Demo­crats to settle these lead­er­ship is­sues without con­ten­tious elec­tions in their caucus. The last time there was a ser­i­ous, bal­lot-count­ing con­test for the Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic lead­er was in 1994, when Chris Dodd of Con­necti­c­ut chal­lenged Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Daschle won by one vote.

This art­icle has been up­dated with news Fri­day af­ter­noon.

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